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Friday, March 1, 2024

The Cairn

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By Iain C. Munro, Feature Writer, The Highland Times

It’s not often that the opportunity arises to visit something that is essentially brand new – especially when it’s a fully commercial Scotch whisky distillery development.

But this was the case when I had the pleasure of touring ‘The Cairn’ just outside Grantown-on-Spey.

Situated right beside the River Spey, where better for the whisky lover, The Cairn looks more like something straight out of a James Bond movie as opposed to what many would think of as a Scotch Whisky Distillery.

No traditional whitewashed buildings here; just a stark grey block, tempered by a gentle curved design, that actually works particularly well in its chosen location.

And all this in a National Park setting.

Breaking the seemingly solid grey visage, though, is a hint of what’s inside when the passerby gets a glimpse of the huge copper stills that are central to the whisky making process.

These sentinels of the art can be seen looking south west along the Spey Valley, through large plate glass windows at the top of the building.

Although it is very much a working single malt distillery, tours are available and it seemed remiss not to pop in and join one.

Our guide was David, who took us through the various stages of not only the whisky making process, but that of the owners and developers of The Cairn.

The Cairn is a multi-million pound development by a family owned business, as opposed to a new venture by one of the large international conglomerates that dominate the industry.

The Urquhart family, owners of Gordon & MacPhail, an Elgin based drinks wholesaler and retailer, are no strangers to the distillery process as they also already own Benromach distillery in nearby Forres.

But it was the foresight of one George Urquhart in the late 1930s that has set the company up for the basis of its success today – he was described at the time as ‘the father of the single malt’ in a time when the predominant scotch was blended whiskies.

Laying down casks from other distilleries in the 1930s and 40s, we learn that through George’s long term vision, the company has been able to release the oldest single malts in the world – some over 70 years old when bottled.

It is this heritage that underpins the whole ethos of this brand new, single malt distillery, right in the heart of whisky country.

David takes us on a tour that is a mix of audio visual presentations combined and a look at how whisky is made in the 21st century.

No wooden vats here or craggy old gents who use their noses to get the mix ‘just right’.

This is a fully computerised process that ensures that consistency is as good as can be expected while at the same time, environmental considerations are kept to the fore.

There are also plenty of photo opportunities, something that’s not always the case at other distilleries on the ‘whisky trail’.

David walks us past the mash tuns and huge copper stills, vast receptacles made by local company and whisky still experts, Forsyths of Rothes.

The tour then culminates with a visit to the tasting room, which has what can only be described as breathtaking vistas of the River Spey and its majestic valley home.

It is here that the visitor can sample some blended malts that have been developed to mimic what the taste of The Cairn single malts will be like when they are released in 12, 18 and 25 years’ time.

It’s just sublime.

In a nod to complementing the already available commercial outlets in nearby Grantown, The Cairn doesn’t have a coffee shop or traditional restaurant but it does have ‘The Gathering’ a semi-private dining experience that can be purchased as part of the tour package.

The food served, in a very much Highland influenced Tapas style, is mostly all locally sourced and just adds to the overall experience – this is quality from start to finish.

As I tucked in to some smoked Halibut, locally cured ham and a selection of Scottish cheeses, I had a chance to catch up with Gordon & MacPhail’s managing director, Ewen Mackintosh.

Rightly proud of the development, Ewen is passionate about not only whisky, but the Highlands and its people as well.

He tells me that in contrast to what some might believe, the modernism of the building was encouraged by the Cairngorms National Park Authority who in hold sway over local planning laws in their patch.

He explains that their view was, ‘if it’s a new building, what’s the point in emulating the past’ which is rather refreshing in a time when preservation of the past can seen as so important in The Highlands.

More interestingly, there were also no objections at all throughout the planning process, further testament to the community relationships this family business has at its core.

Then it’s time to leave but before I go, I pick up my ‘driver’s pack’, three miniatures of the whisky blends that allows anyone who has to drive to The Cairn to sample the products later in their own time.

On our way out, Ewen explains that the location of the distillery not only puts it firmly on the aforementioned whisky trail but as it’s not far from the main A9 arterial road, the family hope that if you only have a chance to visit one distillery if you’re in the area, you’ll beat a path to The Cairn.

I would wholly recommend it.

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